More than three years ago, former Star-Observer and Rivertowns Publisher Steve Dzubay decided to stand up for open records and the right of the public to access information that he and this newspaper felt should rightfully be placed in the public realm.
Last week, three judges who sit on the District III Court of Appeals bench agreed, with a slight exception that will most likely have little effect on the release of future records. The suit, by the way, was filed by the New Richmond News (a Rivertowns newspaper) against the city of New Richmond, but it also affected the Star-Observer since the Hudson Police Department was one of the agencies -- albeit reluctantly -- to follow the original ruling of a few years ago.
The law was ambiguous from the start: only about 80 law enforcement jurisdictions across Wisconsin, including the city of Hudson, had followed New Richmond’s lead in refusing to release accident and incident report details (usually at the advice of an attorney). Meanwhile many others -- including the village of North Hudson, village of Somerset Police, the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office and city of River Falls Police -- continued to allow public access to reports.
While we could stand at the top of a building, beat our chest and exclaim we always knew we were right ... we won’t.
That’s because though it was the endurance race run by Dzubay and the newspaper’s legal representative, Robert Dreps, that kept records open to the light of day, it was the court that confirmed their beliefs.
This was not done for the newspaper -- it was done for the benefit of John Q. Public and their right to know.
It’s a great day for public records across the state of Wisconsin, but it’s even a greater day for you, your friends and your neighbors.
No longer will the names that appear on accident reports be blacked out when one asks for them from the police department. No longer will these documents include information hidden from view.
That’s a good thing.
In light of the Appeals Court ruling this week, Dzubay couldn’t hide the fact that he was pleased with it.
“I’m sorry it took our justice process so long to reaffirm that citizens have a right to know what the police officers they hire are up to and a right to know about crimes and incidents occurring in their community,” Dzubay said when hearing of the court’s decision.
“We’ve never published people’s dates of birth, phone numbers or driver’s license information. Again, I’m just sorry it took so long to affirm Judge Cameron’s logical opinion of nearly two years ago.”
Dzubay’s absolutely correct in feeling bad that it took this long to process the decision. Both the local newspapers and local municipalities have an opportunity to continue to do what we both do best -- and that’s serving the people of the area.
We will continue to work to provide up-to-date information about the happenings of our community. To do that, we need access to timely information. To be provided that information, we need to have full cooperation -- as do the residents requesting the same information. We’re ready to move on.